Sleep-Hacking for Productivity

What I learnt from a year of biphasic sleeping

I got into ‘sleep-hacking’ almost by accident —I would never usually have enough discipline to have forced myself into a new rhythm. My sleep before was quite erratic. I would go to bed at any time between midnight and 6 am and sleep for 5–8 hours. Usually closer to the 5 than the 8. I don’t need very much sleep, but I needed more than that. Thankfully, something came along which forced me to make a proper shift in my habits.

That something came in the form of a well-paid freelance gig, weekdays from 4–7 am. Meaning: ridiculously early. It took me a while to find a rhythm. Sometimes I would be out partying until 4 am and would move from dance mode to work mode. Other nights I tried going to bed at 8 pm, but then I realised that it was impossible to maintain a normal social life when you go to bed at the same time everyone else gets back from work. Then I tried having a very short night and doing a siesta in the afternoons, but I felt pretty tired and groggy all day until my nap so it wasn’t much fun.

Which led me, after much trial and error, to my current sleeping pattern: two blocks of 3–4 hours, from midnight till 3:30 am and then from 8 am till 11 am.

It turns out, this is actually a pretty natural way of doing things. Before the industrial revolution, a lot of historians agree that biphasic sleep was the norm. Medical texts, court records and diaries all point to nights divided into “first” and “second” sleep, with a period of several hours in between, sometimes called the “watching.” This is what historian A. Roger Ekirch discovered by digging through over 500 references going all the way back to Homer’s Odyssey. What stuck out was not only “the number of references (to biphasic sleep) — it is the way they refer to it as if it was common knowledge,” Ekirch told BBC.

In Charles Dickens’ Barnaby Rudge (1840), he writes: “He knew this, even in the horror with which he started from his first sleep, and threw up the window to dispel it by the presence of some object, beyond the room, which had not been, as it were, the witness of his dream.” An old English ballad ‘Old Robin of Portingale’ makes a suggestion for dealing with depression: “And at the wakening of your first sleepe/You shall have a hott drinke made/And at the wakening of your next sleepe/Your sorrowes will have a slake.”

Ekirch’s book At Day’s Close: Night in Times Past describes how, in pre-industrial Europe, households went to bed a couple of hours after dusk and slept for a couple of hours, then woke up and engaged in various activities for a few hours in the middle of the night: this could be having sex, trying to interpret dreams, sewing, reading or writing by the light of the moon or oil lamps. A doctor’s reference from 16th century France said the best time to conceive was not upon first going to bed, but after a restful first sleep, when it was likely to lead to “more enjoyment” and when lovers were more likely to “do it better.”

Biological experiments also suggest biphasic patterns may be the most natural pattern for our bodies. In the early 1990s, psychiatrist Thomas Wehr confined a group of people to a room with 14 hours of darkness a day. They spent a month in this space so that Wehr could study the sleep rhythms they fell into. By the end of the experiment, a distinct biphasic sleep pattern had emerged. They slept for 4 hours, woke for around 3, and slept again for 4.

Which explains why I’ve seen my energy levels rise over the past year. I sleep deeply during both my half-nights and feel energised both in the middle of the night and during the next day. Having an unusual sleeping pattern has forced me to pay attention to my sleep and make sure I was getting enough — whereas before I never actually got enough sleep. I noticed the same thing when I went vegetarian — I started eating a more balanced diet than before just because I was forced to actually think about what I was eating.

The main benefit, though, has been in my productivity levels. During my night-time working shift, I actually manage to do enough work to make a living, so when I get up at 11 and have breakfast, I know anything else I do is a bonus. It feels a little like I had worked in my sleep because that part of my life where I am the only one awake has a surreal dream-like quality, a little bubble of time outside of everyday life.

It is also a wonderfully productive time. In the beginning, I only did what I had to do for my morning gig and then went back to bed, but now I am increasingly working for a few hours on other projects as well before beginning my second sleep. It is quiet, there are no distractions and the dream-like feeling takes the pressure away — you are no longer harassed by the fear of failing, everything seems a lot more achievable in that quiet, peaceful time before the sun rises.

I usually find it hard to write, as much as I love it, as though I was trying to draw water from a stone, but for some reason in the early, still morning, I feel very inspired and write freely.

Plus, during the day I am more productive too. I am well rested, and calm because I know that my bread-winning work is already done. Which means I can just focus on the projects I love for the rest of the day, throw myself into my creativity.

Increasingly, I see those few hours in the middle of the night as a gift rather than a constraint. That said if I don’t take care to make other changes in my life, it can quickly go back to being a pain in the ass.

It’s best not to drink too much in the evenings, or start drinking early, otherwise, you will still be tipsy during your working hours. Not great.

You also have to make sure you are getting 7–8 hours sleep in total. On weekends, I usually go back to monophasic sleeping and allow myself one big lie-in — I find it’s good on a psychological level to have a proper, long and lazy break.

You have to change the way you eat to adapt to your new schedule. For several months, I was down to two meals a day because I didn’t feel like eating in the middle of the night, and by the time I got up for a second time, it was basically lunch time. Now, I try and have healthy snacks during my nightime shift to keep my energy levels up, and to put an end to the vivid dreams about food I was having during my second sleep. I limit myself to one cup of coffee because I don’t want to rely on the stuff to be functional, but it does help put me in the mood to work, and it feels like a little treat.

I would advise you to consult a sleep specialist or doctor before trying out a new sleeping pattern, make sure it is healthy for you, both on a physical and a psychological level.

Remember that long-term, nothing that is bad for you is good for productivity. An, more importantly, you matter far more than your productivity, so take care!

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